Nicolas Walter

Compiled by George Woodcock

Movement for Anarchy


Nicolas Walter is a contemporary British anarchist theoretician who has contributed many historical and polemical articles to Anarchy, Freedom and other libertarian journals. For some years he worked on the staff of the Times Literary Supplement and is editing a rationalist review.


Nicolas Walter:About Anarchism (excerpt)

The change from theorizing about anarchism to putting it into practice means a change of organization. The typical discussion or propaganda group, which is open to easy participation by outsiders and easy observation by the authorities, and which is based on each member doing what he wants to do and not doing what he doesn't want to do, will become more exclusive and more formal. This is a moment of great danger, since an attitude which is too rigid leads to authoritarianism and sectarianism, while one which is too lax leads to confusion and irresponsibility. It is a moment of even greater danger, since when anarchism becomes a serious matter anarchists become a serious threat to the authorities, and real persecution begins.

The most common form of anarchist action is for agitation over an issue to become participation in a campaign. This may be reformist, for something which would not change the whole system, or revolutionary, for a change in the system itself; it may be legal or illegal or both, violent or nonviolent or just un-violent. It may have a chance of success, or it may be hopeless from the start. The anarchists may be influential or even dominant in the campaign, or they may be only one of many groups taking part. It does not take long to think of a wide variety of possible fields of action, and for a century anarchists have tried them all. The form of action with which anarchists have been happiest and which is most typical of anarchism is direct action.

The idea of direct action is also often misunderstood, by anarchists as well as their enemies again. When the phrase was first used (during the 1890s) it meant no more than the opposite of 'political' - that is, parliamentary action; and in the context of the labour movement it meant 'industrial' action, especially strikes, boycotts and sabotage, which were thought of as preparations for and rehearsals of revolution. The point was that the action is applied not indirectly through representatives but directly by the people most closely involved in a situation and directly on the situation, and it is intended to win some measure of success rather than mere publicity.

This would seem clear enough, but direct action has in fact been confused with propaganda by deed and especially with civil disobedience. The technique of direct action was actually developed in the French syndicalist movement in reaction against the more extreme techniques of propaganda by deed; instead of getting side-tracked into dramatic but ineffective gestures, the trade-unionists got on with the dull but effective work - that at least was the theory. But as the syndicalist movement grew and came into conflict with the system in France, Spain, Italy, the United States and Russia, and even Britain, the high points of direct action began to take on the same function as acts of propaganda by deed. Then, when Gandhi began to describe as direct action what was really a non-violent form of civil disobedience, all three phases were confused and came to mean much the same-more or less any form of political activity which is against the law or otherwise outside the accepted rules of constitutional etiquette.

For most anarchists, however, direct action still has its original meaning, though as well as its traditional forms it also takes new ones - invading military bases or taking over universities, squatting in houses or occupying factories. What makes it particularly attractive to anarchists is that it is consistent with libertarian principles and also with itself. Most forms of political action by opposition groups are mainly designed to win power; some groups use the techniques of direct action, but as soon as they win power they not only stop using such techniques, but prevent any other groups using them either. Anarchists are in favour of direct action at all times; they see it as normal action, as action which reinforces itself and grows as it is used, as action which can be used to create and also sustain a free society.

But there are some anarchists who have no faith in the possibility of creating a free society, and their action varies accordingly. One of the strongest pessimistic tendencies in anarchism is nihilism. Nihilism was the word which Turgenev coined (in his novel Fathers and Sons) to describe the sceptical and scornful attitude of the young populists in Russia a century ago, but it came to mean the view which denies the value not only of the State or of prevailing morality, but of society and of humanity itself; for the strict nihilist nothing is sacred, not even himself - so nihilism is one step beyond the most thorough egoism.

An extreme form of action inspired by nihilism is terrorism for its own sake rather than for revenge or propaganda. Anarchists have no monopoly of terror, but it has sometimes been fashionable in some sections of the movement. After the frustrating experience of preaching a minority theory in a hostile or often indifferent society, it is tempting to attack society physically. It may not do much about the hostility, but it will certainly end the indifference; let them hate me, so long as they fear me, is the terrorist's line of thought. But if reasoned assassination has been unproductive, random terror has been counter-productive, and it is not too much to say that nothing has done more damage to anarchism than the streak of psychopathic violence which always ran and still runs through it.

A milder form of action inspired by nihilizm is bohemianism, which is a constant phenomenon though the name seems to change with each manifestation. This too has been fashionable in some sections of the anarchist movement, and of course far outside as well. Instead of attacking society, the bohemian drops out of it - though, while living without conforming to the values of society, he usually lives in and on society. A lot of nonsense is talked about this tendency. Bohemians may be parasites, but that is true of many other people. On the other hand they don't hurt anyone except themselves, which is not true of many other people. The best thing that can be said about them is that they can do some good by enjoying themselves and challenging received values in an ostentatious but harmless way. The worst thing that can be said about them is that they cannot really change society and may divert energy from trying to do this, which for most anarchists is the whole point of anarchism.

A more consistent and constructive way of dropping out of society is to leave it and set up a new self-sufficient community. This has at times been a widespread phenomenon, among religious enthusiasts during the Middle Ages, for instance, and among many kinds of people more recently, especially in North America and of course in Palestine. Anarchists have been affected by this tendency in the past, but not much nowadays; like other left-wing groups, they are more likely to set up their own informal community, based on a network of people living and working together within society, than to secede from society. This may be thought of as the nucleus of a new form of society growing inside the old forms, or else as a viable form of refuge from the demands of authority which is not too extreme for ordinary people.

Another form of action which is based on a pessimistic view of the prospects for anarchism is permanent protest. According to this view, there is no hope of changing society, of destroying the State system, and of putting anarchism into practice. What is important is not the future, the strict adherence to a fixed ideal and the careful elaboration of a beautiful Utopia, but the present, the belated recognition of a bitter reality and the constant resistance to an ugly situation. Permanent protest is the theory of many former anarchists who have not given up their beliefs but no longer hope for success; it is also the practice of many active anarchists who keep their beliefs intact and carry on as if they still hoped for success but who know - consciously or unconsciously - that they will never see it. What most anarchists have been involved in during the last century may be described as permanent protest when it is looked at with hindsight; but it is just as dogmatic to say that things will never change as to say that things are bound to change, and no one can tell when protest might become effective and the present might suddenly turn into the future. The real distinction is that permanent protest is thought of as a rearguard action in a hopeless cause, while most anarchist activity is thought of as the action of a vanguard or at least of scouts in a struggle which we may not win and which may never end but which is still worth fighting.

The best tactics in this struggle are all those which are consistent with the general strategy of the war for freedom and equality, from guerilla skirmishes in one's private life to set battles in major social campaigns. Anarchists are almost always in a small minority, so they have little choice of battlefield but have to fight wherever the action is. In general the most successful occasions have been those when anarchist agitation has led to anarchist participation in wider left-wing movements - especially in the labour movement, but also in anti-militarist or even pacifist movements in countries preparing for or fighting in wars, anti-clerical and humanist movements in religious countries, movements for national or colonial liberation, for radical or sexual equality, for legal or penal reform, or for civil liberties in general.

Such participation inevitably means alliance with non-anarchist groups and some compromise of anarchist principles, and anarchists who become deeply involved in such action are always in danger of abandoning anarchism altogether. On the other hand, refusal to take such a risk generally means sterility and sectarianism, and the anarchist movement has tended to be influential only when it has accepted a full part. The particular anarchist contribution to such occasions is twofold - to emphasize the goal of a libertarian society, and to insist on libertarian methods of achieving it. This is in fact a single contribution, for the most important point we can make is not just that the end does not justify the means, but that the means determines the end - that means are ends in most cases. We can be sure of our own actions, but not of the consequences.

A good opportunity for anarchists to give society a push towards anarchism seems to be active participation on these lines in such non-sectarian movements as the Committee of 100 in Britain, the March 22 Movement in France, the SDS in Germany, the Provos in Holland, the Zengakuren in Japan, and the various civil rights, draft resistance, and student power groups in the United States. In the old days the greatest opportunity for really substantial movement towards anarchism was of course in militant syndicalist episodes in France, Spain, Italy, the United States and Russia, and above all in the revolutions of Russia and Spain; nowadays it is not so much in the violent and authoritarian revolutions of Asia, Africa and South America as in insurrectionary upheavals such as those of Hungary in 1956 and France in 1968 - and Britain when?